Every night at 7 p.m., New Yorkers open their windows and begin clapping and cheering for the frontline workers who are making sure we survive these dark times. In the monotony of quarantine, the clapping is a rare communal act that momentarily takes us out of our sequestered lives, allowing us to show appreciation not just for essential healthcare workers, but also for those performing the most important sacrifice one can make: risking their lives to feed others.
When the clapping dies down and the windows close to keep out the persistent late-April chill, we return to our disparate existences. Many wonder what we can do besides clap.
As we saw after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New Yorkers help one another in times of need. And with each successive disaster, the need to aid our neighbors further embeds itself into our collective DNA. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has challenged that identity, as many living in quarantine have found themselves unable to help—at least initially. This forced isolation has given many of us a sense of uselessness and despair, especially given just how long the food pantry lines are getting.
For example, the Agatha House food pantry in the Bronx has seen the number of people waiting in food lines double since the pandemic began. And while the mayor’s office says it doesn’t know how many people are waiting in similar lines, the mayor and city council announced that they would provide $25 million in emergency funding because of the increased demand.
With their establishments closed, some out-of-work entrepreneurs and food industry startups have struggled with the same feelings of helplessness. However, some have found a way around the constraints imposed by the quarantine. One example is Lemon Tree, a nonprofit food delivery service that, pre-pandemic, delivered healthy, low-cost meals to schools and senior centers in Brooklyn.
“When the coronavirus started getting serious and they closed public schools, we knew we couldn’t keep delivering like normal, and it forced us to pause our services,” said Kasumi Quinlan, Lemon Tree’s community manager. “But we wanted to continue having an impact in the best way we could. And after talking to people we knew who were also working in emergency food and food insecurity, we realized a big need was the lack of volunteers.”
In an effort to bridge that gap, Lemon Tree launched In It Together, an online platform that pairs volunteer with nearby food pantries. (The volunteers are deemed essential workers and allowed to leave their homes to perform these services.)
Civil Eats spoke with a series of volunteers to find out what inspired them to get involved, what the work has been like, and how their lives have changed as a result.
Volunteer with Golden Harvest Food Pantry, Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
Shakeyra Stewart was a waitress before the pandemic forced her restaurant to close. Though she describes herself as a homebody, she started looking for ways to get out and help. “I’d been sitting at home feeling hopeless, because you see so much happening, and [it feels like] there’s nothing you can do,” she said.
In It Together helped connect Stewart with the Golden Harvest Food Pantry. “The whole point is to help people in need because you realize how bad it is and how bad it’s getting, and you realize all the people who are left out by the government, [who] are just not covered well enough,” she explained.
“Volunteering saved me from the spiral of depression and hopelessness.”
Many people in her borough were struggling before the pandemic, Stewart said: “A lot of the people in Bedford Stuyvesant were low-income to begin with, or have since been laid off, so this is just another thing [for them to deal with].”
Volunteering in the pantry has been important for her on a personal level, she said. “I’m horribly antisocial, and last week, I’m like, ‘Who am I?— I’m just out all the time, either doing a delivery or working at a pantry or something.’” Stewart has found helping out to be reassuring and uplifting: “It saved me from the spiral of depression and hopelessness,” she said.
“I’ve made lots of friends, and it’s so great now, because I know all my neighbors,” she continued. “I know all these new routes through my neighborhood. I went to the supermarket doing another grocery run, and I saw this other volunteer who I’d never met in person, but we’d seen each other online. There are so many of us, so many people helping.”
Volunteer for Encore Community Center, Manhattan
On April 20, Robin Kassimir delivered more than 300 meals to community centers and churches in Manhattan. “I’m one of these cautious but fearless people. I’m not frightened by what’s going on at all,” she said. “I know what I need to do to protect myself and to protect other people, and that’s what I do.”
Kassimir says that she feels her role is more than just about delivering food. It’s also about connection. “We’re social people. We need that, you know, and many of the people I’m delivering to are alone in their rooms.”
She has experimented with ways to bring humanity to the exchange. “[First,] I just said, ‘Meal delivery.’ And then when I said, ‘Judy, it’s Robin—I’m here with your meal today,’ there was a much different response than if there was just an exchange of the food and I shut the door. There was this two-second pause. In the old days when I did this, I actually spent time with a meal recipient—there was no risk of disease back then. But, but this little pause, it’s very nice.”
Delivering food is a demanding process, and even in the midst of an epidemic, New York City isn’t an easy city to navigate. Resting against a catering box in the trunk of her SUV, Kassimir said, “I will be perfectly honest and tell you I’m exhausted. [All day], you’re parking your car running in and out. The last delivery really wiped me out, because I came out to some guy screaming, ‘Move your fucking car.’ And I just lost it. And then after five more deliveries, I parked my car and [an ambulance] couldn’t pass, and I said, ‘I can’t take this anymore… Help!’”
Despite the demands, Kassimir adds, delivering food feels good. “It’s just like anything else we do in work—there are frustrating moments. But at the end of the day, I have to say to myself, I am so fortunate that I am brave and physically strong and healthy [enough] to help someone else.”
Volunteer with In It Together, Manhattan
In October 2019, Tyron Rampersad had an operation for upper respiratory problems, which left him particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, but he’s still committed to helping others. Every Saturday, he takes the subway from his home in Elmhurst, Queens, to hand out bags of food to those in need in Manhattan.
After registering with In It Together, he said his family questioned the choice. “They were like, ‘What are you doing? You’re gonna get the coronavirus!’” Despite their concerns, Rampersad says he’s healthy and able-bodied, and he’s observing all the safety precautions.
“My background was in corrections so I did the crowd control [at the pantry]. I welcomed the people—you have people from every age, every ethnic background, and it’s hard for some of them to come. [It’s important] how you welcome them. [Making] eye contact is like saying, ‘Look, you’re welcome; we’re here; and we have to give you what you need.’ Somehow that does something for them, and they return a smile.”
“To be amongst other like-minded individuals that share a common vision right now in New York, that is a blessing.”
Volunteering has meant a lot to Rampersad. “To be amongst other like-minded individuals that share a common vision right now in New York, that is a blessing. There’s this camaraderie. You don’t become best friends and go hang out together, but while you’re there doing this, there’s an energy. It’s almost therapeutic.”
Community Manager at Lemon Tree, Brooklyn
Kasumi Quinlan says the community’s response has been inspiring: between April 6 and 13, In It Together saw its volunteer membership grow from 600 to more than 1,300.
“It’s been really amazing and impressive to see that people are willing to go outside and volunteer, because they understand that volunteering is just as essential as [working] at a grocery store, especially for a lot of people who can’t go to their grocery store.”
In It Together tries to making sure its volunteers follow appropriate safety recommendations. “But every time you go outside,” Quinlan acknowledges, “whether it’s just for a walk or to volunteer, you are taking a risk. It’s been really heartening to see that people are still working for the greater good.”
Jeanette Joseph-Greenway, Founder of Agatha House Food Pantry, & Winnie Parnes, Volunteer, Bronx
Jeanette Joseph-Greenway (left) started the food pantry Agatha House in 2014 after the death of her mother Agatha. The Wakefield section of the Bronx where the pantry is located has been hit particularly hard by the virus. On April 18, despite cold, wet weather, lines at the pantry stretched around the block three times.
“When we first started, we were feeding maybe 200 people a week. We counted 397 people last week,” Joseph-Greenway said. “On top of that, there are the deliveries for the seniors. My phone doesn’t stop ringing. By June it’s going to be worse, to be honest with you.”
Despite the ever-present hardships, Joseph-Greenway has met the crisis—and those waiting in line—with a generous spirit and a warm smile. Although the pantry is struggling for donations, Joseph-Greenway has also seen incredible support from the community. Last week, for example, a woman donated her entire stimulus check to the pantry.
Volunteer Winnie Parnes (right), a single mother, has lived in the South Bronx for seven years. As a freelancer, she quickly moved from financially stable to a precarious place when the pandemic hit. “I realized I didn’t have the resources to help monetarily, and that made me feel even more trumped,” she said. Parnes eventually found In It Together, and through it, Agatha House.
She lives near the Lincoln Hospital and has heard sirens all day and night since the pandemic hit her neighborhood. Bagging groceries for those in need, in the company of others, has been a much-needed lift in her life, she said. “There are so many factors that are overwhelming,” Parnes said. “At least on Saturday, I can put my head down and bag groceries. I can enact a small change for someone.” She has been particularly impressed with how the women in the neighborhood have volunteered their time at the pantry, she said, “Women are the glue that hold it together, honestly.”
Parnes hopes the pandemic will shine a light on the long-standing lack of equity in New York City. “For so long, we’ve had haves and have-nots, and we don’t have the middle,” she said. “We have a large population of super-affluent people, and then we have this really huge number of people who are living barely paycheck to paycheck, without basic necessities.”
If there’s one good thing that comes out of this, Parnes continued, it’s that people who normally can’t see beyond their own lives may realize the financial tightrope that many others in their community are walking. “This didn’t come about overnight,” she said. “Most of these people were already going to the food bank because they didn’t have enough to get to the end of the month.”
Doreen Davis, Director of Community Programs, and Dagmar Kostkova, Food Justice Program Director, at Golden Harvest Food Pantry in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn
Golden Harvest Food Pantry, a project of Northeast Brooklyn Housing Development Corporation, is grappling with a complex set of issues, including a drop volunteers. “We have a large number of elderly [people] who are Asian, and they are really frightened to leave the house,” said Doreen Davis (above at right). “They’re being discriminated against. The xenophobia that they’re experiencing is horrendous.” While Golden Harvest tries to reach out to them, Davis said, the language barrier can make it difficult.
While the Asian community faces racism, poverty and the underlying health conditions it causes have also complicated the response to the coronavirus. “We see a disproportionate lack of medical care, no medical care, and inadequate medical care [in communities of color],” Davis said. “I know people think that America is great because they have all these safety net programs. But you know what? It’s a net, and people fall through the cracks. So we’re either going to have to weave a tighter net, or we’re going to do some social repairs.”
Dagmar Kostkova (above left) agrees. “A lot of our clients have underlying conditions. We have a big population with diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. They are essentially in the high-risk categories [for coronavirus]. We’re trying to educate and feed people, but there are definitely issues with eating healthy,” so having access to healthy and affordable foods is important.
Juan Cayetano Jr., AKA King Tiger
Volunteer at Agatha House, Bronx
The first time Cayetano volunteered to work at a food pantry, it was with his father, a survivor of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. “When I was younger, I’d go with my father to the pantries, and he would also help out. I used to think, ‘Why are people getting their food for free?’” Now, as a father of three in the Bronx, Cayetano understands how hard it can be to put food on the table, especially in this time of crisis.
“I just like giving back to the community,” he said of his work at Agatha House. “[It’s] part of my DNA.” But with the possibility of getting sick or infecting others, especially his family, he must weigh the cost of helping. “When my wife and I spoke, she was like, ‘You know, babe… I don’t know. You’re going to help the community and whatnot, but there’s a risk of you coming home and spreading it all over the family.’”
After volunteering three times at the pantry, King Tiger had to put his work there on hold. “Sometimes, when I do go [to Agatha House], they don’t have masks, and it’s hard for me to actually order any or buy one because the stores are always sold out.”
The lack of access to masks or other PPE at the pantry made the risks to his family too great. COVID-19 has also touched his family directly: King Tiger lost an uncle to the virus, and a cousin survived a life-threatening bout with it.
“I feel a bit disappointed that I had to discontinue, but it’s such a risk.”
As a musician, however, he still feels that he can contribute to the community. Before the pandemic hit, King Tiger wrote “I Made It,” a song that was originally about his making it as a recording artist in the Bronx. But with all the hardship he and his community have gone through, the song has taken on new meaning.
“This song, it’s not only about achieving success, it’s also about people surviving. It’s a kind of dedication for what’s going on right now.”
On the Street: Agatha House Pantry
The Wakefield section of the Bronx, where Agatha House is located, is one of the hardest hit COVID-19 hotspots in the nation, and even before the pandemic created widespread unemployment it was one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The severe economic hardship has left many individuals and families unable to afford food.
Volunteers there see hunger, fear, resignation, and despair in people’s eyes. And every weekend the lines continue to grow.
Co-Founder and CEO of Eat Offbeat Catering Service, Long Island City, Queens
As a caterer who saw her clients disappear overnight, Manal Kahi has transformed her operation to feed those most in need.
Kahi’s company, Eat Offbeat worked to help refugee chefs share their culinary heritage with New Yorkers. Before the pandemic, it offered diverse meals as a kind of cultural culinary exchange. The chefs cook out of a Long Island City industrial kitchen, where they prepare thousands of meals throughout the day. Today, their meals are funded by nonprofits and individual donors, and the chefs’ children are delivering them to hospitals throughout the city, including Harlem Hospital in Manhattan and Interfaith Medical Center in Brooklyn.
“As refugees, [our chefs] have probably gone through way worse than what we’re going through right now, and they’ve already rebuilt their lives—not once, but a couple of times over,” Kahi said. “I’ve heard that from some of the chefs, ‘We’ve gone through it. We want New Yorkers to know that it’s really bad today, but things will get better. And we’re here to hold their hands and take them through the process.’”
This combined experience makes the operation more flexible. “They’re incredibly resilient—that’s something we have seen in each and every single one of our chefs and [members of] the delivery team. They had to pivot overnight. I’m not gonna say it was easy. We changed everything about us as a company … and people just adapted. They showed up the next day at 6 a.m.”
“What our chefs are doing today is flipping the table on the status quo. We as immigrants and refugees are the hosts, and we want to invite New Yorkers to come join us at our table,” she said. “That’s a way for us to return the favor with flavor, right? Because New York has been such a generous home to all of us. It offered us a home when we needed it most, [and] right now, we feel like New York needs us most.”